Before John Ross died this January, he asked his family and friends to do the following with his ashes:
Scatter them along the #14 bus route in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Ross lived on and off for much of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Sprinkle them in the ashtrays in front of the Hotel Isabel in downtown Mexico City, Ross’s home base from 1985 to 2010.
Mix them with marijuana and have them rolled into a spliff to be smoked at his funeral.
A certain half-baked logic ran through much of Ross’s life and writing. For a few years during the Carter era, as he recounts in his (mostly true) memoir Murdered by Capitalism, he spent his afternoons drinking Gallo wine and smoking pot and PCP in the Trinidad cemetery in Humboldt County, California. It was there that he met the ghost of Edward B. Schnaubelt. An immigrant, lumberjack, and anarchist who was shot dead by a neighbor in a dispute over land in 1913, Schnaubelt became Ross’s drinking buddy (in the book, he comes to life after Ross spills wine on his grave) and is his perfect foil: for 300 pages, the duo trade booze and blurry memories of Emma Goldman, the Weathermen, and the Zapatistas, sprawled out in the shadow of a tombstone that reads, “e.b. schnaubelt, born 1855 died 1913, murdered by capitalism.” The symbolism of the setting—a graveyard of American radicalism—is as heavy-handed as the truncheon wallops both men boast of receiving. But the epitaph serves as a crafty synecdoche for the failed history of the Old and New Left that Ross and Schnaubelt tell together, and the memoir is a winning account of myriad lost causes.
Ross was used to rejection. “Tom Ridge and his . . . Praetorian Guard didn’t give a rat’s ass for my little Zapatistas,” he writes in ¡Zapatistas! (2006), recounting a road trip he took from Mexico to the US in the weeks after September 11. He lugged a backpack full of figurines armed with toothpick rifles that he thought might upset authorities because they were stitched together by (and bore the likeness of) Mexican guerillas. Once past customs, he went to Wisconsin, where he gave a talk to a six-hundred-person auditorium, with three people in attendance. In Minnesota, he was delighted to capture a room’s attention—until he realized the big screen TV behind him had been flipped on and his audiences’ eyes were glued to Osama Bin Laden’s lips mouthing words of warning, not Ross’s report on agrarian history. At a high school in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago, he pulled out his dolls, thinking he’d charm the students with his toy revolutionary soldiers.
“What do you think these are?” Ross asked the kids, saying that he felt “sort of like a left-wing Mister Rogers.”
“Terrorists!” the kids shouted back . . . “The terrorists wear those masks!’”
Ross’s books won’t make high schoolers, or anyone else, want to line up behind the barricades—but, at his best, he was as absurd and funny as Herbert Read or Lord Buckley. Yet for all his antics, Ross wasn’t just an angry clown—he was also a relentless political and literary experimenter, one whose disregard for good taste and popular opinion defined his career. In his fiction, he couldn’t help but mix in politics—his only published novel, Tonatiuh’s People (1998), is a schlocky, x-rated anarcho-thriller based on Ross’s time following the failed 1988 Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas presidential campaign through Mexico. In his award-winning reportage on the Zapatistas, Ross couldn’t help but mix in fiction—friends say he regularly invented quotes, and he exaggerated his role “breaking” the Zapatista story and was notorious for interviewing government officials off the record and then publishing the results. And in his best work, like Murdered by Capitalism, he mixed fact and fantasy into a mulligan stew of magical realism that limned the mostly-forgotten hopes of late-20th-century radical political life.
Born in 1938 in New York City to Jewish Communist parents, Ross said his earliest memories were of attending a Union Square protest against the Rosenberg execution, and of his mother hosting debauched dinner parties with Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans in the family’s living room. At 21, Ross left New York for Mexico and arrived there a potato-faced kid with a burgeoning mustache, bright brown eyes, and a hardcover copy of On The Road in his backpack. He and his girlfriend, Norma, and her 6-year-old daughter landed in a rural hamlet in Michoacan, where Ross built a cabin, tried to write a novel, befriended the locals, and grew pot and got high. When he and Norma had a child and, three weeks after its birth, the infant died of an unknown illness, Ross was devastated. There was no hospital in town, and the event became the fulcrum upon which Ross’s early politicization hinged. Not long after the child’s death, when the Bay of Pigs invasion prompted a riot in town, Ross found himself in the middle of the crowd, screaming along with the locals, “Death to the gringo dogs!”
For the next fifty years, Ross sang similar chants across the world. In 1964, he left Tanaco alone and set out for the flowering Haight-Ashbury scene of San Francisco. He was welcomed to the city by the FBI. Five years earlier, in New York, he’d torn up his draft card in disgust over Eisenhower’s invasion of Lebanon and now, with sentiment against the Vietnam War it at its peak, the Bureau nabbed Ross on draft evasion charges. He spent seven months at Terminal Island Penitentiary, where a beating by a prison guard damaged his left eye. (He would lose it entirely a few years later, as a result of another police beating, this time during a street protest.) “You never learned how to be a prisoner,” a parole officer told Ross upon his release. Once free, he got hooked on methamphetamine. He had a baby with a champagne socialist and fellow activist. Eventually she kicked him out and he spent most of 1968, by his own account, “speedfreaked out” in the Mission District.
In prison, Ross had written a pamphlet called What To Do in Jail for other prisoners, and he liked to credit this as his start in journalism. In the 1980s, he found a broader audience. Taking advantage of his familiarity with Mexico and the interest of the Pacific News Service, a left-leaning Bay Area media group, in cultivating him as a correspondent, Ross left San Francisco, where he’d been loafing around and organizing with a group of Trotskyists. He headed south. In Peru, he trailed the Shining Path through the jungle. In Chile, he penned reports on protests against the Pinochet government. In rural Mexico, he followed progressive politician Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’s disastrous bid for the presidency. Between trips, Ross lived with friends in California, growing pot and performing poetry. He toured around Europe, hanging out with Paul Bowles in Morocco and ETA in fascist Spain. When a massive earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, Pacific News Service sent Ross to report on the victims—los damnificados. He decided to stay, making the decrepit Hotel Isabel his home base for excursions up and down the hemisphere. “I was a borocho and a speedhead, and Mexico City was this beautiful hell,” Ross once said in the Spanglish he often spoke. “But it was a hell where los damnificados were really well organized.”
In 1994, at the age of 56 and after decades of rambling around the globe, Ross wrote his first book. On the first day of that year, masked guerillas stormed the main plaza of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town about 500 miles southeast of Mexico City, where peasants battled the surprised local police in the streets. Fighting with machetes, hunting rifles, and, for those with no other weapons, wooden decoy guns, the insurgent army suffered heavy casualties. But by mid-morning, they had taken over City Hall. They freed prisoners from the local jail, burned tax records, and hung their banner from the balcony. This was the spectacular public debut of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and it captivated audiences abroad. The global left—like Ross himself—found itself intrigued by the Zapatistas’ blend of premodern ruggedness and postmodern charm. Months later, Ross published Rebellion from the Roots, his first Zapatista book. He describes a woman calling out to the green-eyed, pipe-smoking Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, “Why do you wear that ski mask?” Marcos stood on a balcony before a crowd of thousands of locals and international tourists still stuck in San Cristobal on New Year’s Day, as the Mexican Federal Army prepared to move in. “Actually,” the Zapatista leader replied with a laugh, “only the most handsome of us are required to wear them, for our own protection.”
The problem with the anecdote is that Ross wasn’t actually there. While the Zapatistas were taking City Hall, he was in San Francisco visiting friends. The woman’s exchange with Marcos had to be reported by telephone. That didn’t stop Ross from rushing to Chiapas as quickly as he could. Nor did it prevent him from claiming, then and afterward, that he had “[broken] the story of the impending uprising in a small northern California weekly weeks before it occurred”—a claim he conjured from an article he published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser on October 23, 1993, in which he described stumbling on the aftermath of a firefight between guerillas and government troops in a stretch of jungle near Guatemala. Only when he arrived in Chiapas around January 7, 1994—a week late—did he realize this had been the Zapatistas.
Despite the dubiousness of the claim, Ross used it to fashion his own creation myth, from vagabond leftist to John Ross, “rebel reporter.” And he made good on it by soon emerging as the movement’s most dedicated observer, following it through Mexico to write Rebellion from the Roots (1995), The War Against Oblivion (2000), The Annexation of Mexico (2002), and ¡Zapatistas! (2006). Ross imagined himself in these books into a legendary figure—a “new John Reed covering a new Mexican revolution,” as Blance Petrich, a reporter for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, called him, comparing Ross to the celebrated American Communist and chronicler of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. John Ross, rebel reporter, became the sort of devoted gringo scribe who would give up drugs and drinking in order to better write about the native revolutionaries; the sort of man who used dolls to preach armed revolution to high schoolers in the weeks after September 11th. The identity empowered Ross to do important work, like his reporting on the 1997 Acteal massacre of forty-five Catholic indigenous Indians (and Zapatista supporters) in Chiapas, which appears in The War Against Oblivion. “The shooters continued down the ravine,” Ross writes, “taking their time, killing their victims slowly, slicing them open with machetes. Four of the women were pregnant. . . .[One] was nearly at full term and they hacked open her womb and yanked out the baby inside and dashed its skull against the rocks. They told each other that they had come to kill la Semilla―the seed.”
Like other American foreign correspondents reporting on rebellion before him—Reed writing on Pancho Villa during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Carleton Beals in his dispatches on Augusto Sandino, Vincent Sheen on Abd el-Krim in the Moroccan Riff in the 1920s, Edgar Snow reporting on Mao Zedong in the 1930s, Herbert Matthews’s jungle interviews with Fidel Castro in the 1950s—Ross found respect and salvation, and his identity as a writer, in his relationship to the revolutionary movement he promoted. “John lived out his dreams in Mexico,” said Alma Guillermoprieto, who relied extensively on Rebellion from the Roots for an early essay on the Zapatistas published in the New York Review of Books and who knew Ross from the time she spent reporting in Chiapas. “He lived out his fantasies there, too.” When one day a mysterious fax showed up at the office of Ross’s editor at Nation Books, it confirmed how compelling the idea of Ross’s life was to post-’68 leftists. “[Ross’s writing] is a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics,” read the fax. The sender was Thomas Pynchon and he wanted to support Ross, whom he’d never met, with a blurb for Murdered by Capitalism. Stories like Ross’s, Pynchon wrote, “seldom get . . . past the bouncers at the gateways of our national narrative.”
Even while he churned out books on Mexico and gained notoriety for his reporting on the Zapatistas, Ross became increasingly involved with events in the Middle East. Just before the Iraq War began in 2003, Ross received an email from a former Marine asking him if he wanted to go to Iraq as a “Human Shield.” Fifty activists from around the world planned to fly to Turkey and ride two red double-decker buses from there to Baghdad. “The lure of the buses with their Keseyesque Pranksters flash from the past excited my ancient Beatnik pheromones,” Ross wrote before boarding a plane to Istanbul. En route, he stopped in San Francisco, where he wished his friends goodbye and told them to scatter his ashes on Schnaubelt’s grave (the more elaborate list didn’t come until later).
Being aboard the bus was like watching the filming of an episode of “Big Brother,” Ross wrote. There were four film crews and even an Australian Big Brother contestant. By the time the group reached Baghdad—on February 15, the same day 12 million people throughout the world protested the impending invasion—they had more than two hundred volunteers. Iraqis lined the roads and handed out roses and blew them kisses. “We told ourselves,” Ross wrote upon their arrival, “that there had not been such a set of international volunteers gathered in one country to defend a besieged people since the International Brigades arrived in Madrid in 1936.” The group did die-ins on the boulevards of Baghdad, and circle- danced and pounded drums and tambourines and chanted Savasa Hayir! (“No War!”) in Martyrs’ Square, where they were joined by young, angry Iraqi men. Donald Rumsfeld threatened that any of the Shields that survived would be prosecuted for war crimes for attempting to impede the incoming bombs.
But in Baghdad, things quickly grew tense between the Shields and their local chaperones—Saddam’s police and a Palestinian NGO called the Friendship and Peace Society. Ross and the others wanted to plant themselves in front of Saddam’s Children’s Hospital, schools and orphanages, and the Iraqi National Museum. But their minders told them they would just be in the way at the hospitals, no one visited the ruins anymore, and “school was not in session in wartime.” The activists relented, and in the final week of February they were dispatched to a pair of Baghdad water treatment plants, two power plants, a grain-storage site, and the Daura oil refinery. Ross ended up at the refinery, and once there, he got to work painting a message in 16-foot letters, “This Site Protected by Human Shields.” One day after Ross and a Turkish activist had just completed the H-U and half of an M, a member of the Friendship and Peace Organization came up to the roof and read the pair the riot act—for “usurping the function of an NGO.” Saddam’s men and the NGO thought Ross and four other leaders—including the marine who organized the trip—had worn out their welcomes by protesting the sites they had been designated to guard. The leaders had to be out of Iraq by that night. “But you can’t do this to me!” Ross recalls blubbering. “I came here just to be bombed. Bush already has a bomb with my name written on it.” “Hours later,” Ross writes in Murdered by Capitalism, “cruising through the darkened desert that the ‘Coalition’ would soon scar with its stupid smart bombs, I was still stewing in my own juices.”
Back in Mexico City, Ross watched on television as the bombing of Iraq began in earnest. Friends hailed him on the street as if they had bumped into a ghost. “But we thought you were being bombed in Baghdad . . .” they said. Ross wore his red keffiyeh in mourning and his neighbors nodded and patted him on the back in the street.
So they bombed Baghdad and I was not invited to the party. The missiles whistled in, the bunker-busters dropped from the bellies of the B-52s like megaton turds of death, the rockets glared red and the bombs bursted in the air. The sky over Baghdad blazed like a Christmas tree on the Fourth of July and [I was] back [in] Mexico City.
Shortly after returning from Baghdad, Ross began writing a history of Mexico City and turning his interest back to the country’s politics. He soon became wrapped up with the presidential campaign of Manuel López Obrador, a popular left-wing candidate whom supporters hoped would capitalize on the pink tide then sweeping across Latin America. At the same time, the Zapatistas began their “Other” Campaign—a tour of the country to protest the presidential elections. When Ross was excluded from a Zapatista press conference held in the border town of Palenque, he freaked out. He didn’t care that it was likely an accident. After spending almost a decade of his life writing about the guerillas, he angrily claimed he was being “barred from press conferences” by the Zapatistas. When López Obrador lost the presidential election, Ross partly blamed the anti-electoralism of the Zapatistas and the “Other” campaign, and denounced their leadership. It confirmed a lifelong cynicism he’d always held in check against his revolutionary enthusiasms. Describing his alter-ego Raus ten years earlier in Tonatiuh’s People, Ross wrote, “Deep inside an unobtrusive shoulder pack was buried a dog-eared copy of old John Reed’s Insurgent Mexico and a half ounce of the finest Humboldt County sinsemilla crop ever grown. Also nestled comfortably amidst Raus’ baggage were his then unquenchable illusions.”
In his last book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2010), one sees Ross struggle against himself. He intended to present a 5,000-year history of the city he called home, but its most compelling story turned out to be one Ross didn’t intend to tell: the story of how hard life had become for him there. As part of a wave of “redevelopment” that began in 1993, the product of a partnership between López Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution and business interests led by Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, the city has pursued a highly successful strategy of crime control and gentrification, in part modeled on Rudy Giuliani’s. The result has been something like what occurred in New York in the 1980s. Ross’s monthly rent rose from $50 to $500 from 1985 to 2010. In the new millennium, the gringo “whiteback” milieu (American bohemians who do seasonal labor in the US to fund layabout lifestyles in Mexico the rest of the year) has started to thin and wander, as has the collection of radical expats from Cuba and El Salvador and the Basque Country and the US who previously found a hospitable home in exile in Mexico City. The English-language newspapers have started to fold en masse. The Zapatistas haven’t been on a march to the city in ten years. At the end of his life, few people needed Ross or the paper newsletter he sent to a couple dozen subscribers to get their news about the city and its politics.
Before his death, I visited Ross in Mexico City. He knew then he was ill with liver cancer, and he liked to joke about it. “If you got here any later you’d be writing my obituary!” he shouted at me when I arrived to his room. At the Hotel Isabel, I’d found him by following the stink of pot smoke to the slit of light that underscored his hotel room door.
“Jeesh, I’m pooped,” Ross said after he let me in. Looking like an avuncular pirate, he wore little fuzzy booties, a crooked red beret, an eyepatch, and a brown leather vest over a black T-shirt emblazoned with a skeleton’s face. Ross himself had only a few front teeth and hallow cheeks, a coffee-stained goatee, and sharp little lightning bolts for eyebrows that crashed toward his nose. On the wall hung a jaundiced FBI Most Wanted poster depicting a woman I didn’t recognize, legs and long leather pants pulled up nearly up to her chest.
“Bernardine Dohrn,” he said, following my gaze (with his good eye) and scratching his belly. “I stole it from the Post Office in 1970 so I could jerk off to it.”
But later, Ross was less ribald. When I asked him if he thought, maybe, his political and literary pursuits had been in vain, he answered, “There’s this word in Spanish, sobredimensionar. It means to over-dimensionalize. I think we over-dimensionalized the Zapatistas. We wanted them to be too many things. We wanted them to represent the whole country’s problems. And I had a lot to do with promoting that image. But they’re just a bunch of Indians twenty miles from the border with Guatemala. They’re more marginal this year than the last, and they were more marginal last year than the one before.”
“Do you think that makes you more marginal than ever?” I asked him.
I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I was just curious what he thought his relevance was. For if there are many ways to read Ross (as a sibilant political propagandist, as a political and stylistic experimenter, as a hack, as a heroic revolutionary) my feeling was that to read Ross as nearly all of his fans do—as a “master of speaking truth to power,” as John Nichols recently wrote of Ross in The Nation―is probably to mistake what’s worst in his writing for what’s best.
What’s worth remembering about Ross isn’t necessarily his Zapatista reportage, despite the partisan meticulousness that defines that work; it’s his sad, hilarious revolutionary picaresque. In all of his writing, at the same time he reported on political skirmishes Ross also poked fun at the habit of American writers, from John Reed to Jack Kerouac to himself, to find in Mexico a palimpsest for their dreams of personal or political revolution. This was the paradox at the heart of his life and work. “John Ross, rebel reporter” was both a dedicated activist and a Quixote, chasing revolutions around the postmodern world like windmills, an insurrectionist looking for rebellion in the wrong historical era as well as a randy satirist of his own search.
Ross sucked on his joint and then coughed into his American flag handkerchief. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I’m not my own critic.”
We had been going back and forth over email before he died. On December 15, he checked out of his apartment at the Hotel Isabel and, with the help of his son, Dante, a Mexico City saxophone player named El Vampiro, and a childhood friend from Philadelphia, he cleared his stuff out of the Isabel and headed for the beach in southeastern Mexico, near Tanaco, to stay with friends. He sent me this note upon his arrival:
wez, i’m now located at the north end of lake patzcuaro at a friends lodging and not far from where i first arrived back in 1959…it is the perfect way to shove off for mars…cats miuing and puppies playing around my feet…no one has any idea when exaxctly the end is nigh…the doctor thought it would be two to four months…it is a thrilling place from which to take my final bows…the pain is intense but oxi contan and morphine keeps it kind of at bay…and my compas are well grounded to see thru the end and beyond…its a once in a lifetime chance…dying is a fascinating phase…i wouldnt miss it for the world…insolidarity johnross en la penumbra
About a week later, things took a turn for the worse. He turned yellow; his eyes wouldn’t shut for reasons no one understood (his glass eye had never shut; now the other one joined it); his brain was muddled by the drugs. One day, lying on the couch, deep in a daze that had lasted several days, he shouted to Kevin, one of the friends he was staying with, to come quick.
“What,” Kevin said, “What is it?”
“What’s happening?” John said, looking up at him.
Kevin was silent.
“I’m dying, right?”
“Yes, John, you are.”
“When is it going to happen?”
“We don’t know,” Kevin said.
And then John sat up in a panic, flustered, and told Kevin to get a pen and pad of paper.
“Write this down,” John said as Kevin came running.
“The anti-imperialist movement,” John pronounced, swirling his hand with a dictatorial flourish.
Kevin wrote it down.
“The anti-imperialist movement is . . .”
“Ah, hell, don’t write that,” John grumbled. Then he gave up and went back to sleep.